John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God Sermon 6: On the office of elder and the commercialization of Christmas

The sixth sermon in this series has no explicit treatment on God’s incomprehensibility, yet it is instructive in other ways. The sermon is a panegyric[1] delivered on the feast day of Philogonius.

In the sermon we see something of Chrysostom’s concept of the communion of the saints. The preacher is careful to emphasize that the remembrance of the departed saint does nothing to add to his glory in heaven. Instead, it is the living who draw encouragement and are even bettered by contemplating the lives of those departed saints (2,3).[2] Those saints who have gone onto heaven in no way need our prayers for they have entered perfect rest.

For today marks the anniversary of his entrance into a life of peace and calm in heaven. There, in heaven, he has moored his ship in a harbor in which there can be no suspicion of future shipwreck, fear, or pain. (3)

Chrysostom offers a meditation on Hebrews 12:22-23[3] and the themes of the church on earth and in heaven and on the celebration of feasts on earth and in heaven (5-10). The pinnacle of the differences is described by Chrysostom in paragraph 9:

Truly this is a marvelous festal gathering, What makes it greater than all others is the fact that, in the midst of the assembly, moves the king of all who are gathered there. After Paul[4] had said: “To countless angels in festal gatherings,” he went on to say: “And to God the judge of all.” And who ever saw a king coming to a festival? Here on earth no one has ever seen it. But those who are in heaven constantly behold their king, They can see him in their midst and they can also see how he sheds on all who are gathered there the brightness of his own glory.

The preacher does not mention it, but this actually relates to his earlier sermons in this series. The very first sermon was on the subject of man’s imperfect knowledge of God. Though barely mentioned, Chrysostom’s assumption throughout that sermon was that man’s knowledge would one day be “perfect.” In sermons three and four Chrysostom repeatedly asserted that the angles failure to “see” God meant they could not know God. So we begin to see that the beatific vision is reserved for those who have entered eternal rest. What is the true extent of that knowledge of God? Is it comprehensive? Chrysostom does not address these questions.

In remembering Philogonius Chrysostom has some very pastoral counsel for those who would seek greatness in the service of Christ:

Listen to the words Christ spoke to Peter after the resurrection. Christ asked him: “Peter, do you love me?” And Peter replied: “Lord, you know that I love you.” What did Christ then say? He did not say: Throw away your money. Fast from food. Live the hard life. Raise the dead, Drive out demons.” Christ did not bring forward or command any of these things or any other miracle or act of virtue. He passed all these by and said: “If you love me, feed my sheep.” Why did Christ say this? Because he wished to show us not only what is the strongest sign of love for him but also to point out the love which he himself shows for his sheep. So now he makes this the strongest proof which Peter can give of his love for him. For Christ’s words practically mean: “He who loves my sheep loves me.” (16)

Chrysostom continues blessing the office of the elder and Philogonius’ service in it (14-22), but of more interest to the modern hearer is what the preacher turns his attention to in the second half of his address (23-41). The feast day of Philogonius falls on December 20 which is, of course, just days before the celebration of Christmas. It is this celebration that Chrysostom devotes the rest of his sermon to.

I sometimes sympathize with those who question the celebration of Christmas. After all, no such observance is enjoined by Scripture and December 25 was almost certainly not the day Jesus was born. Yet in a very practical sense, Chrysostom is right to call it “the mother of all holy days” (23). Obviously,

Had Christ not been born in the flesh, he would not have been baptized, which is the Theophany or Manifestation; nor would he have been crucified, which is the Pasch; nor would he have sent down the Spirit, which is Pentecost. So it is that, just as different rivers arise from a source, these other feasts have their beginning from the birth of Christ. (24)

Chrysostom seems to look down into our own say when he seems to speak of the commercialization of Christmas. (Or perhaps, we should see that our day was not so different from his.) The preacher pinpoints why some care so little for the day:

Away with the business of the law courts! Away with the business of the City Council! Away with daily affairs together with their contracts and business deals! I wish to save my soul. “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but suffer the loss of his soul?” The magi went forth from Persia. You go forth from the affairs of daily life. Make your journey to Jesus; it is not far to travel if we are willing to make the trip. (34)

Indeed, the soul that contemplates the mystery of the Incarnation of the Messiah cannot help but to celebrate the day:

He became a man, he took upon himself the form of a servant, he was spat upon, he was slapped in the face, and, finally, he did not refuse to die the most shameful death. For he poured forth his blood on the cross. (17)
For the fact that Christ, who became man, also died was a consequence of his birth. Even though he was free from any sin, he did take upon himself a mortal body, and that should make us marvel. That he who is God was willing to become man, that he endured to accommodate himself to our weakness and come down to our level is too great for our minds to grasp. It makes us shudder with the deepest holy fear; it fills us with terror and trembling. (25)

So in a fitting pastoral application, especially for a year like this in which Christmas falls on Sunday, Chrysostom exhorts:

And this is why I ask and beg all of you to be here in church for that feast with all zeal and alacrity. Let each of us leave his house empty so that we may see our master wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. This is a sight which is filled with holy fear and trembling. It is incredible beyond our every expectation.
What defense or excuse will we have when, for our sake, he comes down from heaven, but we do not even leave our homes to come to him? The magi were strangers and foreigners from Persia. Yet they came to see him lying in the manger. Can you, a Christian, not bear to give a brief measure of time to enjoy this blessed sight? (26-27)

 


[1] A panegyric is a festival speech. It is classified as epideictic rhetoric. “Epideictic is perhaps best regarded as including any discourse, oral or written, that does not aim at a specific action or decision but seek to enhance knowledge, understanding, or belief, often through praise or blame, whether of persons, things, or values.” G.A. Kennedy, “The Genres of Rhetoric,” in S.E. Porter, Handbook of Classical Rhetoric in the Hellenistic Period, 330 B.C-A.D. 400 (Leiden: Brill, 1997) 43-50 cited in David E. Aune, The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and Rhetoric (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 162.

[2] All paragraph references refer to those in Paul W. Harkins, St John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984).

[3] But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect (ESV)

[4] Chrysostom, as with most patristic writers, attributed authorship of Hebrews to Paul.

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